‘Story catcher’ and researcher Brené Brown looks for themes and patterns in the people who intrigue her. She found out that the things they struggle with - shame and fear - are the same things she struggles with herself. She explains how she handled this wake up call.
Her TED Talk about the gifts of imperfection became one of the most popular TED Talks ever. In her work as a sociologist and a writer, she unravels deeply human emotions like shame, vulnerability and wanting to belong.
It took you quite a while to realize that you were struggling with feelings of shame and fear yourself.
Yes, it took me a long time, remarkably enough. When I do research, I’m completely focused on describing what I’ve heard in other people’s stories. I don’t take too much time thinking about what it’s like for me. I like to investigate, but for a long time, I didn’t investigate my own life. It felt better to ignore how much shame I felt. It changed in 2006, after making a two-column list of things that do and do not help when you want to live an inspired life. In the column with helpful things, were concepts like self worth, playing, resting, trust, authenticity. In the column with unhelpful things were things like muting your feelings, perfectionism, comparing yourself to others. When I looked at these columns from a distance, I was shocked. I had to sit down for a moment. It turned out that I was living completely according to the ‘shit list’.
How did you handle this wake up call?
I’m a pragmatic, so I looked for a therapist that could help me work on it. During the first session, I told her that I needed more things from the ‘helpful’ list, and I asked her to help me. I also asked her not to make it too complicated with digging up trauma from my youth and everything (she laughs heartily). In the end, I’ve been meeting her for a year and a half and it wasn’t easy, but very much worth the while. I had a complete breakdown, although you might think of it as a spiritual awakening. The cosmos woke me up and I was ready to make some changes.
What did you learn?
To worry less about what others might think of me, for instance, to be less of a pleaser and especially to let go of the need to be perfect. It was time to work on my selfcriticism. If you want to take a good look at your own story, with all your shortcomings and weaknesses, it’s crucial to do this with a mild perspective. If you want to get to know yourself without being nice to yourself, it will only make you more judgmental towards yourself. Whether we like it or not, we are imperfect beings. It’s important not to judge the weak and vulnerable side of you, but to learn to handle it better. Your strengths can help you to do that.
Your new book is about our desire for connection, for belonging to something. That’s a theme in your work.
As humans we’re made for connection, for being part of a group. That’s simply how we’re wired. From the moment we’re born, we need a connection to be able to grow – emotionally, physically, intellectually and spiritually. Whether we feel connected to our environment influences the development and the functioning of our brain.
Brené Brown, Braving the Wilderness. Ebury Publishing
Text: Susan Smit - Photo: Savs